The legacy of an Italian priest shows that in Catholicism, the past is never past
ROME – Today marks 63rd anniversary of an important turning point for 20and Catholicism of the century, and which has direct relevance to understanding the current occupants of two of the most influential offices in Italy: Pope Francis, head of the Catholic Church, and Sergio Mattarella, the recently re-elected President of the Republic.
That turning point was the ordination of Giuseppe Dossetti to the priesthood on January 6, 1959, by the legendary Cardinal Giacomo Lercaro of Bologna, whom Dossetti would go on to serve as a key advisor and ally.
Both Francis and Mattarella have been described by many Italian observers as Dossettianithat is, followers of the legendary socially responsible priest.
Born in Genoa, as a young man, Dossetti became involved in the Italian Catholic action movement. He was nine years old when Mussolini’s forces marched on Rome, and he became a determined anti-fascist, at one point participating in combat with Italian partisan forces under the code name Benigno. After the war, Dossetti became involved in politics, supporting the tradition of a democratic republic and playing a key role in drafting the country’s post-war constitution.
Dossetti was always motivated by a strong Catholic faith and spirituality, and during the 1950s he felt a growing pull towards the priesthood. He told Lercaro of his wishes in 1956, and after two years of consideration, Lercaro finally ordained Dossetti, then 45, in January 1959.
Three years later Dossetti accompanied Lercaro to the Second Vatican Council as his peritus, or theological expert, where they were part of the large progressive majority. However, unlike most leaders of this movement, who were primarily interested in internal church reform, Dossetti’s vision was strongly additional announcementseeing the renewal of the Church in terms of vital engagement with social and cultural movements, especially the defense of the poor.
During the council, Dossetti was the only Italian to be part of a working group on Church poverty which met at the Collegio Belga in Rome and was led by the French theologian, Father Paul Gauthier, that of many observers attribute it to the stimulation of the liberation theology movement in Latin America. Dossetti was also part of the inspiration for Lercaro’s famous homily for the first World Day of Peace on January 1, 1968, in which he directly condemned the American bombings of North Vietnam. Lercaro was removed from his position in Bologna by Saint Paul VI shortly afterwards, clearly angered by Lercaro’s break with the pontiff’s more diplomatic approach.
As the drama of Lercaro and Dossetti unfolded, two young Catholic men in their twenties watched it all and were inspired by it: Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who joined the Jesuits just months before Dossetti’s ordination , and Sergio Mattarella, who deepened his involvement in the youth branch of Catholic Action.
Bergoglio, of course, would become Pope Francis half a century later, making Dossetti’s vision of a “poor church for the poor” the mission statement of his papacy.
As for Mattarella, who essentially saved Italy from itself last month by reluctantly accepting a second term as president when efforts by the main parties to find a successor ended in resentment and paralysis. , his career could in some ways be seen as one long effort to translate Dossetti’s legacy into the messy business of government.
Matarella took up the political torch from his older brother Piersanti, who was a member of the Christian Democrats and served as president of Sicily until his assassination in 1980 after leaving mass on a Sunday, an ambush believed to have been ordered by the mob Sicilian in retaliation for his efforts to break the Mafia’s hold on local government.
Young Sergio Mattarella was the one who recovered his older brother’s body from outside the church where he had fallen, and in the years to come rose through the ranks of Italian politics, eventually serving as Minister of Defense and education as well as Deputy Prime Minister before being elected President for the first time in 2015. Generally speaking, Matterella has always been seen as part of the “social Catholicism” trend of center left in the political life of the country.
Of his devout Catholicism, there is little doubt. A small sign appeared during the years of Saint John Paul II, when many left-wing politicians pretended to shake hands with the pope rather than kiss his ring as a demonstration of the secular character of the Italian republic and the separation of church and state. Mattarella, while sharing these ideals, nevertheless quietly executed the traditional bacciamano each time he met the pontiff. He attends mass at the Basilica of Sant’Andrea della Fratte in Rome, not far from the President’s residence at the Quirinal Palace, where the pastor in a 2015 interview described him as someone who “comes often. . he is a good Catholic”.
In his speech Thursday at his swearing-in ceremony, Mattarella laid out an ambitious agenda for Italy’s future rooted in Dossetti-style social Catholicism, insisting on human dignity as the foundation.
“Inequality is not the price to pay for growth,” he said, taking direct aim at a conventional claim of capitalist dogma. “Instead, they are a drag on any prospect of growth,” he said, lamenting the “desperate and endless poverty that sadly mortifies the hopes of so many.”
Certainly, not all Catholics in Italy are convinced that Mattarella is a living embodiment of the faith. Some, for example, complain that Mattarella once resigned from a ministerial post to protest against a law that paved the way for the rise of Silvio Berlusconi’s media empire, eventually propelling the conservative Berlusconi to the post of prime minister. , but he did not resign in protest. either a law liberalizing in vitro fertilization, or a law authorizing rapid divorce. (This despite the fact that Mattarella was not in office when either of these laws were passed, so he had nothing to resign.)
More broadly, some Catholics here see Mattarella as the product of a pasty, quasi-socialist version of the faith, a version that virtually ignores the transcendent dimension – a charge many of them would, of course, make about Francis too.
Either way, it’s fair to say that Francis and Mattarella are proof positive that despite the mythology about Catholicism being unable to change, in reality things are changing all the time. Not so long ago, Lercaro was a cardinal whose career ended in ignominy and papal rebuke, and Dossetti was a nearly forgotten footnote in history. Today, in the form of the Pope and the President, their legacy could rather be seen as representing the soul of Italy’s ruling class.
The famous words of William Faulkner apply in a particular way to Catholicism: “The past is never dead. It didn’t even happen.
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